For his outstanding 20th album, the Boss doubles back to the promised land of Asbury Park to reckon with the ghosts of the past
In 2018, Bruce Springsteen stood at the bedside of George Theiss. He’d come to say goodbye to his lifelong friend, the guy who’d dated his sister, Virginia, and in 1965 had encouraged him to join his first band, the Castiles. In Springsteen’s 2016 autobiography, Born to Run, he’d described George as “both Elvis and Paul McCartney (the King AND a Beatle, the true double whammy!)” who “was our resident lothario.” They’d made music together for three formative years, blasting it out at high school dances, union halls, and nightclubs around the Jersey shore. This experience had set Springsteen on his way to becoming the legend we know today. Now Theiss was dying of lung cancer and leaving Springsteen behind as the sole surviving Castiles member.
Nostalgia and death have always been central themes in Springsteen’s work but this particular moment carried a new kind of loss. For the first time, Springsteen found himself to be the lone survivor. This feeling is crystallized as Letter to You, a new album recorded live in less than a week with the help of the E Street Band at Thrill Hill, Bruce’s home studio in Colts Neck, New Jersey. Surrounded by family and friends, Springsteen has made one of the warmest and most reassuring records of his career.
For Springsteen, the 2010s were largely about codifying his already ironclad legacy. There was a massive tour for the 35th-anniversary deluxe reissue of 1980’s The River. There was the 2016 autobiography and accompanying album, Chapter and Verse, which became the stage show Springsteen on Broadway. But along the way, he also released a ton of solid late-career music on 2012’s Wrecking Ball, 2014’s High Hopes, and 2019’s Western Stars, all co-produced by Ron Aniello. Letter to You contains more excellent late period jams and is particularly important because it unearths three fascinating relics from Springsteen’s early days.
“If I Was the Priest,” “Janey Needs a Shooter,” and “Song for Orphans,” were all written around the time of 1973’s debut Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. but none was ever officially released. “If I Was the Priest” saw the light briefly in 1974 when it wasrecorded by Allan Clarke. “Janey Needs a Shooter” indirectly inspired the similarly titled“Jeannie Needs a Shooter,” a song co-written by Springsteen and Warren Zevon for the latter’s 1980 album Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School. And, a solo acoustic take of the Dylan-esque “Song for Orphans” was passed around by collectors on bootlegs for years. All three songs finally get their due on Letter to You. These are 50-year-old songs written by a man in his early 20s performed by a handful of 70 year-olds come to life and, thanks to the incredible strength and musical bond of the E Street Band, they dovetail very well with the new material.
Amazingly, Letter to You is the first time the E Street Band recorded live together in one room as a unit. Each track was arranged and captured in roughly three hours. Springsteen would briefly teach everyone the song then he’d let ’em rip. The results are stellar. There’s really not a bad one in the bunch. Opener “One Minute You’re Here” is a quiet, driving thesis statement on the temporality of life. “Last Man Standing,” “The Power of Prayer,” and “House of a Thousand Guitars” sing the praises of healing through music. And, the two singles, “Letter to You” and “Ghosts,” are undeniable.
The sessions were documented by long-time visual collaborator Thom Zimny and will be released alongside the album as a feature-length film. Zimny was given full-access to the brief but emotionally charged process and through his lens, we see the delicate interplay within the band. We get to watch Springsteen and wife Patti Scialfa arm-in-arm as they work out harmonies, observe guitarist Steven Van Zandt make suggestions and help shape arrangements, and witness saxophonist Jake Clemons, nephew of his late bandmate Clarence Clemons, perform his first studio recordings with the E Street Band after nearly a decade as a touring member.
Letter to You is full of these magical moments, moments shared between friends and lovers, and, as the Boss says, “moments when you can feel the hand of God gently rest upon your shoulder and you realize how lucky you are, lucky to be alive, lucky to be breathing in this world of beauty, horror, and hope.”
The film is written and narrated by Springsteen, which sometimes gives it the quality of a beautifully photographed series of musical therapy appointments. Near the end, he says “we’ve not been made perfect by God but here I try to speak in the voice of my better angels. We have been given the tools and the property of the soul to be attended to and accountable for and that takes work.”
And thanks to Zimny’s film we actually get to see that work and what makes Springsteen and his band still so special after all these years.